Part V – Is the Boer Case Unique?
by Cedric Parsels
This is a new series from Rev. Cedric Parsels covering the history of gravamina in the Christian Reformed Church.
Most people intuitively recognize that getting married is serious business. It’s serious, because it is risky. And its risky, because when someone gets married they don’t know how their circumstances or the circumstances of their spouse are going to change in the future. For example, their spouse may become gravely sick, or cause them to go bankrupt. At some point, they may find their spouse no longer attractive. Or, perhaps their spouse will undergo changes other than physical, say, by undergoing a change in their political views or even their religion. They may even start rooting for Hope College Basketball! Still, their marriage vows bind them to their spouse. Circumstances change and they are obligated to adapt.
Of course, the risk inherent in getting married is shared in many other oath-bound relationships. Enlisting as a soldier, for example, is inherently risky for the same reason as with marriage. A person might enlist believing that it is highly unlikely that war will break out during their tour of service. In their own minds, they haven’t enlisted to fight. They just wanted to give back a little. And besides, they look good in dress blues. Nevertheless, when war breaks out, they are still expected to pick up a rifle and run into battle. Circumstances change and they are obligated to adapt.
The same goes for officebearers in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). When a person becomes an officebearer in the CRC, they enter into a covenant, an oath-bound relationship with the CRC. As explained in Part I of this series, an officebearer upon signing the Covenant for Officebearers declares their heartfelt belief that all the doctrines contained in our confessions are doctrines that “fully agree with the Word of God.” Because of that, they promise to “promote and defend these doctrines faithfully.” And they promise to “[conform their] preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.”
Importantly, church members who become officebearers enter into this covenant knowing that the creeds and confessions may change. The CRC may decide that it was wrong about some teaching and revise its confession. Or it might decide that it needs to add some teaching to the confessions. Or it may interpret the confessions in order to ensure that people within the church are not misled by some false teaching. And just as the boy who joined the military simply to play soldier still has to pick up his rifle when ordered to fight, so CRC officebearers are obligated to adapt when the CRC either subtracts from, adds to, interprets, or even reinterprets its confessions.
It is for this reason that I am perplexed by one of the arguments that Prof. Smith makes in her Summary of the History Behind the Guidelines for Gravamina. As I’ve commented before, in that article, Prof. Smith attempts to distance Synod 1976’s handling of the Boer case from its establishing of our guidelines for gravamina. She does this apparently, because, if we take Synod 1976’s handling of Dr. Boer’s gravamen as our precedent for how to handle confessional-difficulty gravamina today, then her and the denominational office’s interpretation of confessional-difficulty gravamina is false and all those officebearers who have taken exception to Synod 2022’s confessional interpretation are actually acting in violation of the Covenant for Officebearers.
Despite attempting to distance Synod 1976’s handling of the two issues, Prof. Smith nevertheless acknowledges that there was some connection between the two (even if she does not accurately convey the true extent and depth of that connection). “The decisions of Synod 1976,” Prof. Smith writes, “[do] provide some background for understanding the guidelines for gravamina in the Supplement to Article 5….” Having made this concession, however, Prof. Smith attempts to dissuade readers from pressing this connection too hard. According to Prof. Smith, Dr. Boer’s case is “certainly unique” and its applicability to our situation today is “questionable.”
How the Boer case is "unique" Prof. Smith does not explicitly say. It cannot be that Prof. Smith thinks that it is unique because it was a confessional-difficulty gravamen. As we have seen, she clearly believes that confessional-difficulty gravamen were around long before Synod 1976.
Neither can it be the case that the Boer case is unique because Synod 1976 did not grant Dr. Boer an exception to the doctrine of reprobation. If that is why Prof. Smith believes the Boer case is unique, then she is simply begging the question. She is assuming the very thing that she needs to prove, namely, that Synod 1976 understood confessional-difficulty gravamina to be useable in that way. Only once she has demonstrated that Synod 1976 thought that a confessional-difficulty gravamen could be used to grant exceptions can we even start wondering why synod didn’t grant one in this case. But she has yet to demonstrate that Synod 1976 thought confessional-difficulty gravamina could be used to grant exceptions. And I have provided more than enough evidence in the last four articles to cast doubt on any such interpretation of Synod 1976’s actions.
Assuming then that Prof. Smith is not contradicting her own history and that she is not begging the question, it seems that the only remaining possibility is that, for Prof. Smith, Dr. Boer’s confessional-difficulty gravamen is unique, because it was not submitted in response to a synod’s having “added an interpretation of a confession to the requirements [for] signing the Covenant for Officebearers” (Smith, Summary).
If this interpretation of Prof. Smith’s claim is correct, however, then it should be obvious at this point why Prof. Smith is wrong that the Boer case is unique in any relevant way. The only difference between Dr. Boer’s confessional-difficulty gravamen and the gravamina being submitted (mostly by ministers) today is that the doctrine Dr. Boer had a problem with was one that had been in the confession for 400 years whereas the doctrine in question today is one that (arguably) was added on June 15, 2022. But to say that this makes Dr. Boer’s case so unique as to be inapplicable to our situation today is ridiculous. No one was forced to become an officebearer in the CRC and to sign the Covenant for Officebearers. And those who signed it knew or at least ought to have know that the church could alter its confessions or its interpretation of the confessions at any time. At the very least, ministers ought to have know that this could happen, because Prof. De Moor and Prof. Smith were their teachers!
The fact that some officebearers are now unhappy with the change in their circumstances does not absolve them of their responsibilities with regard to the oath they took when subscribing to the Covenant for Officebearers. And such unhappiness clearly does not warrant any ad hoc reinterpretations of our guidelines for gravamina.
In conclusion, I want to express my emphatic agreement with Prof. Smith when she states that “the Boer proceedings over many years and the adoption of the gravamen process during those years show[s] a denomination that realized that being a confessionally vigorous church required mechanisms for honest theological dialogue and mutual respect within a broader framework of confessional fidelity.” Like Prof. Smith, I am all for “vigorous” confessional conversations marked by “honest theological dialogue and mutual respect.” All I am saying is that the “broader framework of confessional fidelity” as described by Prof. Smith and the denominational offices is not the “broader framework of confessional fidelity” that was established by Synod 1976 and that we find expressed in our church order today. Gravamina do not give CRC officebearers license to take exception to our shared confessions of faith.